Until we return to the usual Jan. 3, enjoy this daily series of longer pieces in which we unravel the mysteries and the histories of storied addresses.
The first time Travis Bass stepped into the unusual building on Canal Street – the one with twelve ornate stories surrounded by dingy warehouses and Chinese signs – was during a New Year’s Eve party hosted by Frank Müeller, the man behind infamous New York clubs like Fun and The Limelight.
In 1998, the Lower East Side was “the wild, wild west,” Bass recalls. Müeller was “kind of a crazy guy,” and he had rented an entire seventh floor, divided into two lofts, which he shared with several friends. Drifting through the party, Bass noted polished wooden floors outlined like a basketball court, a couch designed with holes to stick your head through, and CDs glued to the walls and creating the shimmering effect of a hologram. The party was “outrageous,” in typical Müeller style. But most impressive was the vista: “It was amazing. They had a view of the whole city.”
The Lower East Side was a low-rise neighborhood around those parts, and 54 Canal Street towered over everything. Despite its conspicuousness, though, the building was mostly ignored by the rest of New York, which left undesirable real estate to sweatshop owners and bohemians with a knack for turning ramshackle corners into raffish palaces.
At the party, Bass told Müeller he was planning to move to the city himself to advance a career in design and events. Müeller mentioned an “amazing” second floor. Then he took Bass downstairs to a room of 2,800 square feet, drywalls, and boarded-up windows. “It’s an old bank,” Müeller told him. “And it’s for rent.”
Bass moved in during 1998. The place was a mess, so he started renovations, painting the ornamental ceiling matte blue to disguise the cracks, turning scaffolding into a makeshift terrace, and installing a 360-degree rotating bedroom wall “to catch the wind.”
Sometimes, for workouts, Bass would walk up and down the building’s interior stairwell past Chinese sweatshops. Sometimes people barged into his apartment looking for a brothel that had taken up temporary residence next door. Once, on a whim, some of Müeller’s roommates even came down to try a séance.
“It was a weird open-palm meditation thing,” Bass remembers. One guy talked about a drowning, for example, because Canal Street had once been exactly what its name suggests. “He saw a whole lot of history and shit in there.” If this guy was the real deal, perhaps he even saw a history of Eastern European Jews, because this was no ordinary building.
Bass spent eight years living on the banking floor, hosting parties with friends like photographer David LaChapelle, and throwing down plywood tables for 50 dinner guests at a time. He finally vacated in 2006, after new owners pushed rents through the roof. Now, with renovations of a different sort, the building is being transformed into an up-market hotel that is due to open in 2015. (Bank your betting money on a new iteration of Ace.)
But despite a century’s worth of dramatic changes, something has endured at 54 Canal Street. It can be seen today, etched into a frieze above the ground-floor entrance between two Ionic pilasters. It recalls the immigrant people who once defined this lower east side of Manhattan, their dreams of prosperity and freedom; it also invokes the name of a man who once defined them.
S ▪ JARMULOWSKY’S ▪ BANK ▪ EST ▪ 1873
If a building is a palimpsest, re-inscribed with meaning by each new inhabitant, this is the earliest mark. It is also the most indelible one, shining through everything that has come since.
Sender Jarmulowsky started poor and ended up a macher – a maker, or “big shot,” who could navigate business practices and command respect from his tight-knit community. In an article for American Jewish History, the historian Rebecca Kobrin argues that his life story “reads like that of a character in a Horatio Alger novel,” those fanciful rags-to-riches tales in which the underdog triumphs through honest hard work.
The beginning of his life seems unlikely enough: Jarmulowsky was born in Grajewo, Russia-Poland, in 1841, then orphaned at age three and raised by the rabbi of Werblow. Because he was extremely sharp, he ended up earning his own rabbinical ordination at the Volozhin Yeshiva – the “Harvard” of Talmudic colleges at the time.
This was the first twist of fortune to befall a blessed man: Annie Polland, a historian at the Tenement Museum, tells me that “according to the Jewish norms or ideal types in Europe, your masculinity can be defined by your scholarship.” You don’t need money to be considered a catch, in other words. So Jarmulowsky married well and went into business.
That business was passage and exchange. Jarmulowsky started selling shiffskarten: steamship tickets to the United States. But when Hamburg authorities denied his request to settle permanently in Germany, he turned to his own product, transporting his family to America, where a great movement of East European Jews was just getting underway. There was no turning back, either. In 1876, Jarmulowsky signed naturalization papers, effectively renouncing fidelity to “any foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereign.” By 1880 he had his own American passport, which described his face as “regular” and forehead as “high.”
In these early decades, the Lower East Side would have seemed like an ambiguous frontier, with waves of immigrants trying to work out new ways of being far from home. It was a place where familiar strictures all but disappeared, for example: unlike Europe, synagogues could advertise their Jewishness. Reminiscing in Commentary on the “culture on Rutgers Square” (modern day Straus Square), S. K. Blumenson describes a burgeoning scene of “religion and atheism, free love and vegetarianism, politics and ideologies.”
There were soapboxes, stars-and-stripes, and a merging of old-country decorum into something distinctly American. Polland calls it an idea of reinvention. “It was up to these people to kind of work out how to do it,” she says. “You’re dealing with a time in which leadership is all over the place.”
But Jarmulowsky stepped up to the plate as a de facto leader. Partly this was due to his already famous achievements. In Memoirs in Profile, Louis Lipsky, while reminiscing about his grandmother, describes Jarmulowsky’s influence as “a simple, self-supporting, self-relieving operation with Jarmulowsky as the magician who makes all the works go round.” Not only did he sell shiffskarten to a great many immigrants, he established himself as a banker of infallible repute.
“We are as strong as ever,” he told The World after another bank run in 1903, this one triggered by misinformation. And he combined this reputation with a sterling record in philanthropy, including co-founding the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Perhaps it’s little wonder that Jarmulowsky was nicknamed the “East Side J. P. Morgan,” or revered in the pages of the Tageblat, or satirized as “Jobblelousky” in a novel, Ghetto Silhouettes, where “his income rolled in very much as the waters of the Hudson sweep into the sea.”
But stature is often more than a tally of achievements, and Jarmulowsky doubled as a symbol. If masculinity was defined through scholarship in Europe, America defined it through business acumen. Here was a man who had both sides covered. “Jarmulowsky was living proof that in America one can be a rich businessman but also be a true pious Jew,” noted the Yiddish newspaper Morgn zhurnal (the quote is translated by Polland). As a Rabbinic scholar and successful banker, the man from Grajewo became a towering example of self-transformation in the New World.
And every icon deserves a monument. For 40 years, Jarmulowsky’s bank operated out of a mixed-use building at 54 Canal Street while Jarmulowsky bought up the properties around it. Things changed in 1911, however, when The Real Estate Record and Building Guide made a big announcement. Contractors had started demolitions “preparatory to the erection of the new Jarmulowsky Bank,” 12 stories high, which would “be an innovation for the East Side by being the first strictly high-class tall bank and office building in the entire section.”
The operative term here is “high-class.” Costing $350,000 and designed by Rouse & Goldstone, the building was intended as a statement: neo-Renaissance in style, with Indiana limestone, classic moldings, and an ornate terracotta crown. Hermes, the Greek god of finance, framed a clock above the doorway; a massive tempietto on the roof was “probably inspired by Athens’ Choragic Monument of Lysicrates,” notes the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The bank was visible from everywhere, and that was precisely the point.
Jamulowsky wanted to establish the Jewish quarter as something equal to other parts of New York. “It was a reminder that the Lower East Side was not this closed-off little ghetto,” Annie Polland explains, “but a way that people were becoming part of the New York economy.”
Polland offers a scenario of locals visiting the new bank. “You have these people living in tenements,” she says. “They walk in off Canal Street [covered] with the grime of the city and the soot of the city.” Suddenly they find themselves inside a two-storey banking hall filled with Caen stone and polished bronze railings, the sort of place “that could have been uptown.” For immigrants saving money to buy a store, or move to another borough, or send steamship tickets back to Europe, “all their hopes and aspirations would be embedded in that room.” Jarmulowsky had transferred his aura into the building.
Jarmulowsky’s Bank opened on May 6, 1912, with a public holiday for the east side. There was a large parade and a lavish advertisement in the Jewish Daily Forward. Even The New York Times was complimentary about the design. Everything was going to plan, it seems, but then three weeks later, at the age of 71, Jarmulowsky died.
Until very recently, Jarmulowsky’s Bank building was a curious example of stately decay. Enormous graffiti tags marred the western wall, while the windows were shuttered and the clock had become a casualty of vandals. Next door is the “Ten Ten Sewing Supply Corp.,” Chinese trinket stores, and empty windows plastered with signs advertising crab rangoon and chicken on a stick.
In 1990, the then-owners Sing May Realty demolished the rooftop tempietto, causing Christopher Gray in the New York Times to ask what “unmakes” a landmark. As the Lower East Side increasingly embraced artisan barbers, exclusive galleries, and the bespoke trimmings of hipsterdom, 54 Canal has loitered in the annals of ignominy.
After Jarmulowsky’s death and burial in Mount Zion Cemetery, Queens, his bank began a decline. Sender’s son Albert told the Times that “the bank’s business was due almost entirely to Mr. Jarmulowsky’s personality and his knowledge of the people of the east side.” The New York Sun even put a dollar value on Jarmulowsky’s charm: $50,000 per annum.
But the bank’s business was contingent on conditions in Europe. And as Europe slipped inexorably into war – or, as The Sun delicately put it, “unfortunate circumstances following the breaking of friendly relations among the European Powers” – those bank runs became more frenzied in all Jewish banks, with depositors scrambling to withdraw funds for their relatives in the old countries.
The State Superintendent of Banks stepped in to halt the sudden drain, but it was too late for many: Meyer Jarmulowsky, another of Sender’s sons, watched his own bank default, triggering street riots and an assassination attempt. (“Tush!” said Meyer’s lawyer after foiling the assailant. “It was nothing”).
Jarmulowsky’s Bank collapsed in 1917, with the indictment of Harry and Louis Jarmulowsky for financial mismanagement. But the symbolic meaning of the fall became clear a few years later, in 1922, when the New York Times reported that three of Sender’s great-grandsons were being prosecuted for theft: Arthur went to jail for stealing jewelry; Edwin went to Elmira Reformatory for fraud in foreign exchange; and Alfred was sent to the psychopathic ward at Bellevue for passing a worthless check.
“The name you bear used to mean a lot, especially in one section of the city,” the judge told Arthur. “You don’t seem to realize the difference between what is other people’s property and what is your own. Twenty-five years ago the name Jarmulowsky stood for honesty as far as private banks were concerned on the east side.”
Jarmulowsky’s Bank building was auctioned off at bankruptcy proceedings and drifted into a century of mixed usage. Following the sale, the banking floors of the building went first to the North American Bank, and then the Capitol National Bank. The Landmarks Preservation Commission says the rest of the floors filled up with textile manufacturers – the American Art Manufacturing Company, for example, which made lace curtains and scarves – before the entire building was turned over to a piano manufacturer.
By the mid-1970s, it had acquired its more familiar tenants, with an array of East Asian names filling up the books. By the time Travis Bass took up residence and installed his rotating wall, the neighborhood had changed beyond recognition, with the Lower East Side the sort of place, Bass says, where you could walk around “without a shirt, wearing pajama pants and sandals.” Time had not been kind to Jamulowsky’s legacy.
The financial records tell a slightly different story, though. In 2004, Sing May Realty sold the building to CWC Inc. for $13.3 million. This doubled in just two years, to $25.25 million, when the building was passed on to the controversial real estate developer Baruch Singer (Bass moved out around this time). Singer was an avid supporter of landmarking the building, which happened in 2009; he was also one of the first to champion the idea of a hotel or residential lofts, though it would take one more sale – in 2011, for $36 million – before an owner would arrive who was willing to put in the actual legwork.
On the surface of things, a hotel might seem a far cry from Jarmulowsky’s original intentions. But in some respects it is remarkably consistent. A hotel is concerned with money, mobility, and prosperity. And DLJ Partners, which own the structure, describes the building as an opportunity for drawing attention to the “transitional” Lower East Side: “We believe that our redevelopment … will further catalyze the improvement of the surrounding neighborhood,” notes the investment literature.
While many of the project details remain cloaked in secrecy, the widely rumored involvement of Ace Hotels, perhaps in the manner of the American Trade Hotel in Panama, also suggests the sort of high-profile direction the project may be aiming for.
What is confirmed is Taavo Somer as creative director, a man “who embodies the Lower East Side vibe,” says Andy Rifkin, managing partner at DLJ. Often credited with the urban woodsman trend, Somer is responsible for Freemans and Isa, and New York Magazine recently distilled his popular style to five “elements”: Rusty, Scruffy, Woolly, Shellacky, and Peely.
Somer is teaming up with L.A.-based Commune Design, as well as the local architect Ronald Castellano, who was involved in the landmarking of Jarmulowsky’s Bank, and who is also responsible for the Garfield Building and nearby Forward Building – another Jewish icon.
“The structure is solid,” Castellano says. While these sorts of buildings need major work, “I think we are going above and beyond the landmark requirements.” Some of this work includes removing non-historic alterations, and restoring cornices, balustrades, and urns at the roofline.
The attention to detail extends right down to the design of a metal grille at the base of a new storefront, which is modeled after a grille that appears in historic drawings from 1913. There is even a chance that the old tempietto could return, adding a 60-foot addition to the current Lower East Side skyline. “The owners are extremely sensitive to historical significance,” says Castellano.
And this raises the important question of preservation. A small community on Graham Street is all that remains of the area’s once dense population of Jewish immigrants. “This completely changes what we’re trying to save,” notes Seth Kamil, the historian behind Big Onion Walking Tours. Even the Eldridge Street Synagogue functions as a museum rather than an active temple today: it remains a marker of the Jewish immigrant story, symbolizing the past even as its original function has largely declined.
Because so much of Jarmulowsky’s intention was invested in the facade, the interior of the structure is almost immaterial. Indeed, only two floors of the building were ever intended for a bank; the rest was commercial. Like the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building in Midtown, the significance was the exterior and what it projected to people in and beyond the neighborhood.
“I don’t think it’s being erased,” says Rebecca Kobrin, when I ask her about the future of the bank as a luxury hotel. “The fact that it’s going to actually be redone in a way that the outside will be the same as it was at the turn of the century is remarkable. A historic icon is being kept visually intact in the neighborhood it was meant to inspire.”
Correction: The original version of this piece was revised to correct the spelling of Annie Polland’s surname and to correct the attribution of the translation from the Yiddish newspaper Morgn zhurnal.